Outside In: The Perfect Night Sleep
As any new parent will tell you, sleep is a much-desired necessity in life. Not only do we crave it, but it is also something that can quickly become obsessive. How much sleep did I get last night? How much will I get tonight? How many times is the baby going to wake? Will she get back to sleep after the feed?
With the arrival of a new royal baby, Prince William welcomed his brother to the world of little sleep: “I am very pleased and glad to welcome my brother into the sleep deprivation society, that is parenting!”
It’s not just the parents who hone in on sleep; it has become a topic of open conversation. People will start asking you how your sleep is, how many times the baby feeds in the night, what stretches of time will they go without waking? Sometimes even a moral value is placed on sleep, “Is he a good baby, does he sleep well?”
I was so obsessed with sleep when my kids were born. I would fear to go to bed- something I’m sure those who have insomnia could identify with. The night stretched before me as such an unknown, and I didn’t even want to enter into it. I was deeply jealous of anyone who was able to hit the pillow with oblivion guaranteed when I knew I might be up again five minutes after drifting off. We moved our first child out of our bedroom because my fear of her waking up and needing me was so high. Every time she snuffled, or my husband snuffled, I’d be wide awake with panic – “this is it! I have to get up now.”
Occasionally, if I’ve had a run of bad nights, I’ll still feel a slight sense of dread when facing the night. But these days it seems that sleep deprivation has become a competition in our house. Who got the least sleep last night? Who most deserves the lie in and the excuse of grumpiness? “Well, I was awake four times with the kids coming in.” “Well, it took me three hours to get to sleep.” “Well, I woke up at 5 am and couldn’t get back off.”
We’re so invested in sleep and how much we get that we wear watches that monitor our sleep for us. Not just the hours that we spend lying down, but supposedly even measure the quality of sleep that we’ve received. This seems to be the reason most quoted for the need of a sleep tracker – we may not even realise how badly we’re sleeping! But all this data and analysing may not necessarily improve our sleep patterns. It may just cause a new level of sleep anxiety.
In fact, this anxiety is so real that it has been given a name. The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine published a paper that coined the word, “orthosomnia” – a new sleep disorder describing people who become so focussed on the data from their sleep tracker that they become obsessed with getting the perfect night’s sleep.
While I try not to veer into this level of obsession, we do value sleep in our household. There are some generally accepted benefits of good sleep on our health – helps us maintain a healthy weight, improves concentration, reduces the risks of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes (check the studies for yourselves to asses the claims). It is always something that we have prioritised in the lives of our kids, and we are thankful to have established good patterns when they were little. It has undoubtedly improved our sanity, regardless of the impact on theirs.
Having said all that, I know that it is a value that my husband and I far too easily compromise on. We are prepared to miss sleep for highlights where our priorities truly lie. Most parents are prepared to give up sleep for the sake of their children. How many times have you sacrificed your bed to nurse a sick child or to comfort from a nightmare? But sometimes, it reveals less-worthy priorities. In spite of being aware of how important rest is to our functionality, it is easy to fall into the temptation of “just finishing off” a project before bed, and even more so, just replying to one more social media message, watching one more YouTube video, or finishing one more game of Candy Crush. As adults, we often lack the sleep discipline that we try to instill in our children.
It seems to me that sleep, as with so many areas of life, needs to be held in the balance. We can’t become so obsessed with it that we develop an anxiety disorder, but we do need to recognise it as an area of discipline in our lives. It is not right to be fearful every time something wakes us up, but we do need to know when to put down the screen and shut our eyes.